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Parashat VaYechi: Yoseph’s Post-Adolescent Righteousness is Met with Parental Skepticism by Yaakov Bieler

January 4, 2012 by  
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Yoseph’s righteousness not only during adolescence, but also beyond.

                In the essay for Parshat VaYeshev, “A Powerful Adolescent Commitment to Righteousness”,[1] Yoseph’s special qualities that caused ChaZaL to categorize him as a “Tzaddik” already at the relatively tender age of seventeen were discussed. His repeated adherence to a powerful idealism that precipitated certain exceedingly unpopular behaviors vis-à-vis his brothers, as well as his resistance to considerable sexual temptation once he was sold into slavery in Egypt, were attributed to typical adolescent insistence upon consistency, justice, and loyalty, despite powerful pressures to act to the contrary.[2]  In Parashat VaYechi, when explaining a peculiar phrasing in Beraishit 47:31, RaShI once again invokes Yoseph’s righteousness, but this time it refers to his actions at a later point in his life, after he has been appointed administrative ruler over Egypt at age 30 (41:46).

Beraishit 47:31

And he (Yaakov) said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he (Yoseph) swore to him. And Yisrael (Yaakov) bowed himself on the bed’s head.


“On the bed’s head”…Another interpretation: because his “bed” (the offspring which he had fathered) were whole, for there was no evil-doer among them,[3]  for behold Yoseph was a king, and furthermore he had been kidnapped and forced to live among the nations, and nevertheless he has maintained “TZIDKO” (his righteousness).

While RaShI’s comment mainly attributes to Yaakov a sense of deep satisfaction based upon his recognition of Yoseph’s having maintained his Jewish identity despite his political success in a foreign environment,[4] as evidenced by Yoseph’s obeying his father’s demand that he swear to bury Yaakov in Canaan (47:29-30),[5] he also invokes the sobriquet of “Yoseph HaTzaddik” (Yoseph, the righteous).

Not all Rabbinic approaches describe Yaakov as sanguine about Yoseph’s behavior during his reign in Egypt.

                But are all of Yoseph’s adult behaviors, in contrast to those he engages in while still an adolescent, truly worthy of the complementary and exemplary title of Tzaddik? Consider the Rabbinical discussion swirling around Yoseph’s reunion with his father after twenty-two years of separation.

Beraishit 46:29

“And Yoseph readied his chariot and went up to meet Yisrael his father towards Goshen. And he appeared before him, and he fell on his neck, and he cried on his neck exceedingly.”

Although the scene is obviously an emotional one, it is not altogether clear that both parties involved were equally personally moved. On the one hand, only singular rather than plural pronouns are used in the verse suggesting that only either the father or the son was embracing and crying, but that these overtures were not being reciprocated.[6]  Furthermore, an omission that would appear to be inconsistent with Yaakov and Yoseph’s finally meeting after so many years of separation is the absence of any reference to kissing, in contrast to the dramatic reunions described in 29:13; 33:4, 45:15 and Shemot 4:27. On the one hand, we could understand that Yoseph, who has to maintain a dignified appearance before his Egyptian subjects, cannot make his feelings public, and just as he acted privately with his brothers (45:1) he would try to wait for a private moment alone with his father. RaShI, however, suggests that it was in fact Yoseph who allowed his emotions to overpower him,[7] in contrast to Yaakov who was holding himself back in order to fulfill the of reciting the Shema,[8]  the Divine Commandment taking priority over an individual’s seeing to his/her personal matters, however pressing and emotionally powerful they may appear to be.

“…but YAAKOV did NOT fall on Yoseph’s neck and did NOT kiss him. And the Rabbis say he was reciting the Shema prayer.”

The Rabbinic tradition cited by RaShI[9]  is reminiscent of R. Akiva’s extraordinary heroism and deep faith, described in Berachot 61b when while being tortured, the martyr recites the Shema to demonstrate that his love of God was truly “with all of his soul” as he had been proclaiming twice a day throughout his life. Yaakov too, according to this Rabbinic perspective, even when he is about to embrace his long-lost son, places his devotion to God first and concludes his prayers before giving his son his full attention.

A different way of understanding Yaakov’s failure to kiss Yoseph upon their reunion.

However, a reference in one of the minor Talmudic tractates casts a darker shadow upon Yaakov’s failure to kiss Yoseph.

                Masechet Kalla 3b

Baraita: Defer your personal desires in favor of the Desires of Heaven, for we see regarding Yaakov that he did not kiss Yoseph.

Gemora: Why didn’t he kiss him? He thought, “Since he has been in exile, women were seduced by his attractiveness.[10] [11] 

It is written, (46:29) “And he appeared before him and he fell on his neck.” He (Yoseph) wanted to kiss him (Yaakov) and he (Yaakov) did not allow him (Yoseph) to do so. Therefore it is written, (Ibid.) “And he cried on his neck exceedingly” (as a result of Yaakov’s refusal to allow Yoseph to kiss him, Yoseph cried).[12]  

This is why when he (Yaakov) died, he (Yoseph) kissed him, as it is written (50:1) “And Yoseph fell upon the face of his father and he cried over him and he KISSED him.” He said, “I have been in the presence of my father for the past thirty-three years[13]  and I have not kissed him on the mouth. Now when I am about to bury him, I shouldn’t kiss him?” 

And this is parallel to what is written (48:8) “And Yisrael saw the children of Yoseph and he said, ‘Who are these?’” Is it possible that up until this point he did not know who they were? But rather he was asking their father whether they were born from a mother[14]  to whom Yoseph had given a “Ketuba” (a marriage document that is a feature of all traditional Jewish weddings.) And once he (Yaakov) saw the “Ketuba”, his mind was put at ease and he kissed them (but he continued not to kiss Yoseph!)

Said Rava: We learn from here (from Yaakov’s continued refusal to kiss Yoseph) that Yoseph was aroused by her (the wife of Potiphera—even if he did not actually engage in sexual activity with her).

Rava’s opinion, i.e., that even if Yoseph did not actually engage in a sexual liaison with his master’s wife, he was nevertheless more physically involved with her than he should have been, reflects one side of a Rabbinic argument regarding Beraishit 39:11.

And it was on a day like this, and he (Yoseph) came to his house to do his work, and there was no one there from amongst the members of the household.

Sota 36b:

“To do his work”—Rav and Shmuel (debate the meaning of this phrase, but we do not know which took which position.)

One said: His actual, literal work.

And one said: He entered to take care of his “needs”.[15]

                Consequently, according to this view, the recitation of Shema was a mere pretext for Yaakov to avoid kissing Yoseph, rather than a sign of the patriarch’s placing his responsibilities to God ahead of his feelings for his family in general and his children in particular.

                Masechet Kalla’s passing reference to Yaakov’s enquiries concerning Ephraim and Menashe are expanded in other Midrashic sources, all suggesting Yaakov’s suspicions with respect to Yoseph’s having possibly exploited his good looks and power to engage in inappropriate liaisons. Consider the following example:

Beraishit 48:8-9

And Yisrael saw the children of Yoseph and he said, “Who are these?” And Yosef said to his father, “These are my children that HaShem has Given me ‘BaZeh’ (in this).” And he (Yaakov) said, ‘Take them now to me, and I will bless them.”

Pesikta Rabbati #3:

What is meant by “BaZeh”? That he (Yoseph) brought Osnat, their mother, before his father, (as opposed to only the Ketuba) and he said to him, “Father, with your permission (bless these boys) even for the sake of this ‘TZADEKET’ (righteous woman).”[16] Yoseph began to plead and said to him, “Father, my children are TZADDIKIM! They are like me! They are my children!”[17]

While Yaakov originally loved Yosef fiercely, did something change once father and son were reunited in Egypt?

                The Midrash thus creates an amazing irony in the stories of Yaakov and Yoseph. Originally the Rabbinic tradition attributed Yoseph’s ultimate ability to resist Mrs. Potiphera’s enticements to the powerful impression that his father and his father’s values had made upon him—in Beraishit Rabba 87:7 and 98:20 R. Huna in the name of R. Matna suggest that at the last moment, just before he was going to sin, Yosef saw his father’s face, and this supplied him with the resolve or at least caused him sufficient embarrassment to refuse to go any further. Yet although Yoseph in fact remained a Tzaddik in the full sense of the word, he could never fully convince his father of this fact, and Yaakov goes to his grave unsure about what to think of his beloved son.

Objective evidence of Yoseph’s righteousness is provided only much later.

                The Midrash portrays Yoseph’s public exoneration as taking place not only after Yaakov’s death, but after Yoseph’s own passing.

Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Parshat BeShalach, the introductory portion.

The coffin of Yoseph would travel (during the forty years of wanderings in the desert) alongside the Holy Ark.

Passersby would inquire, “What is the nature of these two containers?” They would reply, “This is the coffin of someone who has died, and this is the Ark of the One Who Possesses Eternal Life.”

And they further asked them, “And what was the nature of this individual that he merits traveling alongside the Holy Ark?”

And they would say to them, “The one whose remains are in this coffin fulfilled the laws that are contained in this Holy Ark.”

The Midrash proceeds to list the Ten Commandments and the manner in which Yoseph fulfilled every one of them, including (Shemot 20:12; Devarim 5:16) “Do not engage in adultery”, where the Midrash points out that Yoseph resisted the advances of Mrs. Potiphera.

                While it is wonderful for us to think about Yoseph’s greatness and his mighty inner strength and resolve, he must have nevertheless been devastated that his father would just not accept his protestations of both innocence as well as righteousness. It is hard enough to maintain a level of Tzidkut; to be doubted after you have sacrificed so much must have been extremely difficult.


[2] See particularly the section on “Late adolescence”.

[3] The comment is made in contrast to Avraham whose son Yishmael had to be exiled (21:10 ff.), and Yitzchak, who was aggrieved by the actions of his son Eisav (e.g., 26:35). Although ChaZaL maintain that both of these wayward sons eventually repented—see RaShI on 25:9 and Beraishit Rabba 67:13—nevertheless their descendants are not considered progenitors of the Jewish people in contrast to all of the sons of Yaakov. Although Reuven (35:22), Shimon and Levi (34:25, 30) all do things that invoke their father’s immediate ire as well as deathbed rebuke (49:3-7), they are nevertheless never disenfranchised from the Jewish people.

[4] This parallels RaShI’s interpretation on 32:5, where Yaakov tells Eisav that despite his having spent considerable time in the presence of the immoral and corrupt Eisav, he emerged spiritually and morally unscathed.

[5] See Be’er Yitzchak on 47:31. It could have been considered an insult to Egypt if the Vice Vizier refused to bury his family members in the land over which he was ruling; nevertheless Yoseph swore to his father that Yaakov would be buried in Canaan, and carries out that oath. RaShI on 50:6 suggests that Yoseph expends political capital in order to obtain permission to return Yaakov to Canaan, since the only reason why Pharoah acquiesced to Yoseph’s request was when Yoseph threatens to expose particular royal shortcomings if he is refused.

[6] The consistent use of the singular masculine pronoun, i.e., and HE fell upon HIS neck, and HE cried on HIS neck exceedingly, as opposed to the plural form that would have then read “and THEY fell upon ONE ANOTHER’S necks, and THEY cried on ONE ANOTHER’S NeckS exceedingly, suggests that whereas one of the two completely gave in to his emotions, the other did not.

[7] Yoseph’s emotionalism and difficulty with respect to self-control is suggested by the two instances of the verb “VaYitapek” in Beraishit 43:31 and 45:1.

[8] The assumption that the Forefathers and Foremothers essentially fulfilled the Commandments of the Tora, such as the twice-daily recitation of Kriyat Shema, is based in least in part upon Beraishit 26:5, as it is interpreted in Kiddushin 82a.

[9] In his critical edition of RaShI’s commentary, R. Avraham Berliner (reprinted by Feldheim, Jerusalem, 5730, p. 90) notes a number of sources that allude to this Midrash, but do not state it explicitly. These include Tshuvot HaGaonim #45 in the name of R. Yehudai Gaon, and Masechet Derech Eretz Zuta #1.

[10] The idea that Mrs. Potiphar was not the only one unduly attracted by Yoseph’s appearance is captured in the following Midrash:

Midrash Yelmadeinu, Yalkut Talmud Tora, Beraishit #161

(Beraishit 39:7) “And the mistress of his master lifted her eyes”—One time, all of the Egyptian women gathered and came to see the attractiveness of Yoseph. What did Mrs. Potiphar do? She took Etrogs and distributed them to each one, and she gave a knife to each one, and called Yoseph and set him before them. When they looked upon his attractiveness, they cut their hands. She said to them: And look how you respond after only a short time (in his presence), I, who am around him constantly, all the more so!…

[11] According to Rabbinic tradition, Yoseph’s brothers were also suspicious of his having engaged in dubious sexual activity due to his attractive appearance. Consider the following Midrash:

Beraishit Rabba 91:6

Said R. Yehuda bar Simon: Yoseph also was aware that his brothers would come to Egypt in order to purchase food. What did he do? He set up guards at all of the entrances to the country, and said to them: “Look carefully at all those who come to buy food and write down their names as well as the names of their fathers.” In the evening they would bring him the information accumulated that day.

When the sons of Yaakov came, they each used a different entrance, but their names were written and brought to Yoseph. That evening he found there was one who was called Reuven ben Yaakov, and another Shimon ben Yaakov and one Levi, etc. Each guard had the name of one of the brothers. Immediately Yoseph ordered that all the food storage houses cease operations except for one. He gave the names to the individual in charge of the single food storage house and told him that as soon as these individual come to him, he is to arrest them and bring them to Yoseph.

Three days passed, and they did not appear. Immediately Yoseph took seventy  soldiers from the palace guard and sent them to search for the brothers in the market. They went and found them in the section of the market where prostitutes could be obtained. And what were they doing in the market for prostitutes? They said: “Our brother Yoseph is exceedingly handsome. Perhaps he has been sent to a brothel. They were caught and brought before Yosef…

Although these suspicions did not attribute to Yoseph willing participation in such activities, but rather only in his capacity as a slave, nevertheless when it is discovered that he has been free for a significant period, suspicions of his personal activities in such a context would be understandable.

This Midrash suggests that Yoseph on the one hand, and the brothers on the other, were searching for one another. While the biblical text explains clearly what Yoseph’s intentions were, i.e., to test the brothers in order to establish whether their attitudes towards Rachel’s children had changed significantly over the course of twenty-two years, why they were looking for Yoseph after all this time is less clear. Did they think that perhaps they could help Yaakov out of his state of depression—but then why had they not travelled to Egypt before? Had they expressed previously an interest in journeying to Egypt to Yaakov, might this have aroused suspicions on the part of their father that there was some ulterior motive behind such an expedition? Only now, that Yaakov has himself sent them do they have sufficient “cover” to pursue their curiosity or even desire to make amends for what they had previously done? Did their respective consciences bother them only after they were imprisoned by Yoseph (42:21), or had this been bothering them from a significantly earlier time, perhaps when they saw the initial effect of Yoseph’s disappearance upon their father? 

[12] The association between crying and being wrongfully suspected of improper behavior is made by RaShI on 29:11 and 50:17. However other instances of crying are simply understood as evidence of extreme frustration and emotional turmoil.

[13] Yaakov is 130 when he comes to Egypt (47:9) and dies at 147 (Ibid. 28). Yoseph is seventeen when he is sold (37:2). It would appear that Yoseph was too young prior to his being sold for kisses to have been withheld due to suspicions of improper behavior, and once he and Yaakov are reunited, Yaakov was unprepared to truly trust him.

[14] Other fundamental questions raised by Rabbinic sources include whether Yoseph should have married an Egyptian in light of Devarim 23:9, or for that matter a non-Jewess at all. Midrash Aggada (Buber edition) 41:45 suggests that Osnat was actually the child of Dina and Shechem who was left on the doorstep of the Potiphera’s as a foundling.

[15] RaShI on 39:11, adds to the latter point of view the word “Ima” (with her), i.e., “his work with her” suggesting that Yoseph intended to fulfill his sexual needs with the woman who had been urging him to do so for some time.

[16] I.e., even if you do not consider me a Tzaddik, surely the mother of Ephraim and Menashe is a Tzaddeket, with her children therefore being deserving of your blessing.

[17] I. e., if my children are Tzaddikim why can’t you believe that I am and have been a Tzaddik as well?

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